On the Kenai Peninsula, Black bears are much more common than Brown or Grizzly bears, and are therefore much more likely to be seen. When hiking in bear country the chances of an encounter with a bear are generally remote, but taking the necessary safety precautions may mean the difference between a fun bear sighting and a very unpleasant encounter.
Anytime you are on a walk or a trip in bear country, you should have a can of pepper spray attached to your belt or backpack strap with a holster. Pepper sprays without holsters always end up in a pocket or a pack, and are generally useless, since when the bear appears you will seldom have time to remove the pack and retrieve the spray. For more information on pepper spray, please click here.
Some hikers prefer to carry a firearm while hiking instead of pepper spray. For more information on firearms for protection against bears, please click here. While you may feel you are an expert hand-gun user, you should carefully consider whether you want to rely on a gun for protection. Statistically, pepper spray works to repel a bear attack 98% of the time, while a firearm has only about a 60% success rate. Bottom line, a chemical deterrent just works better against large predators - that's why skunks routinely use them! The reason is several-fold. First, its much easier to hit a bear with a chemical deterrent's wide spray than a single lead bullet. Secondly, once you connect, the chemical deterrent temporarily blinds and disorients the bear, while he may not even notice the bullet unless you are fortunate enough to hit the kill zone. Any experienced hunter can tell you that a large-game animal hit with a lethal shot may take nearly a minute to drop in some cases. Third, if you miss hitting a vital organ with your gun you may just further enrage the bear.
When hiking through wooded areas or anywhere with a limited view, the best precaution against a surprise encounter with a bear is to make noise. Periodic calling-out or loud talking will let the bears know you are around and in most cases will result in the bear leaving before anyone even sees it, since bears are usually quite wary of humans. "Bear bells" work as well but if you are hiking a in a group, talking is usually easier.
In many areas of the country, and even in Alaska, not all brown-colored bears are actual "brown bears," or grizzlies, as they may be brown or "cinnamon-phase" black bears. On the Kenai Penninsula, however, virtually all black bears really are black, making identification relatively easy. The distinction is important, because brown bears are much more likely than black bears to aggressively attack humans.
The first reaction you should have with either species is to immediately stop. Never run away! When you run, the bear sees you as prey, and you will never outrun a bear! Look closely at how the bear is acting. If the bear is simply looking at you or moving away, or is standing on its hind legs, sniffing the air, it is curious about you and it is probably (almost!) as nervous as you are. If the bear is approaching you or swaying its head from side to side, and emitting a woofing or grunting sound, it is in attack mode.
Either way, begin speaking slowly and calmly, while slowly removing your pepper spray or gun from its holster. Avoid eye contact, as this will be taken as a challenge by a grizzly; look instead at the animal's chest or flank. If there are two or more people in your party, ease them together, slowly, so the bear sees them as a group. This is more intimidating to the bear, and it is very unlikely for a group of three or more to be attacked. If the bear does not begin to move away on its own, start backing slowly away, while keeping your eyes on the bear and talking calmly to it. If you are carrying food or any fish or game you have caught, drop it before you begin to move away.
Adult grizzly bears cannot climb trees, so while you are facing the bear or retreating, look for any sturdy, climbable trees that are close to you. If the bear continues to act aggressive and you are sure you can reach a tree and climb at least 8 feet up it before the bear reaches you, this may be a good option. Do not gamble that you can run more than a few yards to a tree if the bear is very close since as soon as you move it may trigger an attack, and the bear can move twice as fast as you can.
In the event of a charge:
- Raise your pepper spray, pull away the safety clip, and hold the spray can with your thumb poised above the trigger.
- Hold your ground. Wait until the bear is within 20 feet, and then spray while aiming over your thumb. The spray is wide and colored, so it is fairly easy to hone in on your target. You should aim for the bear's face with the spray.
- If you hit the target, the bear will probably turn and run away when reacting to the stinging of the spray, which will temporarily "blind" it. This is the time to make your retreat, but remember, only run once the bear is out of the immediate area. Otherwise, back slowly away while watching the bear.
- If the pepper spray does not stop the bear, or if you do not have pepper spray, drop to the ground, lying flat, cover your head and neck with your hands, and spread your feet to make you more stable and harder to turn over. Wearing a backpack in this situation is good protection. Hold very still, "playing dead" which will let the bear know that you aren't a threat, and that there is no need to charge. The bear may bite or paw at you, but if you hold still your odds of surviving are greatly increased.
- If you have to get down on the ground, keep hold of your pepper spray if you have any, so you can spray the bear again if it coninues to attack. In that event, empty the can on the bear when it is at close range.
- Since most bear attacks are the result of the bear being frightened or protecting it's cubs, once you are no longer perceived as a threat it will usually move on.